Desem, Day 0

I've decided to start a desem again.

What the heck is desem? Well, it is supposed to be a Belgian whole wheat bread, nly Belgian friend d__ doesn't know about it. In any case, it appears in the best whole-grain bread baking book I've ever read, The Laurel's Kitchen Bread Book : A Guide to Whole-Grain Breadmaking. My Amazon review is quoted here:

The one thing that sets this book apart from all others is not the thorough instructions, or the fact that all the bread recipes use whole grains. It's the recipe for desem bread. "Recipe" doesn't adequately describe the extremely detailed instructions for making this what maybe the ultimate whole-grain, natural-yeast bread. It almost resembles a science experiment, and can be a great project for anyone who is interested in the way flour and water mixed together interacts with whatever bacteria (?) is floating in our air to create natural leavening agents.

And the results? Well, they are simply amazing. This bread literally tastes different every time it's baked - it keeps getting better and better as the desem (which is like a 'mother', a bit of dough you feed and carry on from baking to baking) matures. It's also quite a lot of work - I've let several desems die over the years due to neglect. If you are going away on holiday for some time, expect to have to start over or spend a lot of time reviving the desem (unless you can find a willing friend to pet- I mean, desem-sit for you!) Perhaps keeping a desem doesn't fit a modern lifestyle. Still I keep on starting new desems simply because the flavor is so unforgettable. In any case, get this book, enjoy the other whole-grain breads in there - and eventually, I urge you to try the desem bread.

So, today was a day for getting enough flour for the initial incubation period. This is really the most crucial step in the whole process. There are only 3 ingredients in desem bread: whole wheat flour, salt, water. The type and quality of the flour is the difference between success and failure.

The flour has to be really fresh, or the natural leavening agents won't like it and will not come to live in your desem. It should also be free of any preservatives or nasty things - mouse droppings, insect bits, whatever, or your bread will taste rotten. (Believe me I have encountered some pretty foul flour, especially from some health food stores where the stock doesn't rotate fast enough.) It also has to have a pretty high gluten content, since the lightness of the bread when it gets to the "mature" stage depends entirely on the how much the bread can expand. If you choose a soft, low gluten flour, the "cells" in the bread will be small and wimpy, and you will have a leaden bread. In the book, they recommend looking for flour that is at least 12% protein.

I've added one more requirement to this list, and that's that the flour be affordable. Desem requires a lot of fllour. You don't want to be buying some specially produced designer flour, unless of course you can afford to.

Only one whole wheat flour sold here regularly fulfills these requirements, and that's the Coop house brand Bio (meaning organic) Vollkornmehl. Coop is the second biggest supermarket chain in Switzerland after Migros. It just barely meets the protein requirement, is date-stamped, and has no nasty flavors lingering in it. The Migros brand Vollkornmehl is too low in protein, and therefore too low in gluten. (actually the Migros brand white flour is very low in gluten too - bread made from it has an almost cakelike texture.) And flour from the Reformhaus, the major health food store chain here, is expensive.

So, now I have a 10 kilos of organic whole wheat flour. I'll be using about 6 kilos of this tomorrow at least.

The other critical ingredient is water. Chlorine somehow seems to kill off the leavening agents, so tap water is to be avoided, unless you can filter it. I just use bottled still water. The last ingredient, salt, is only used later on, and can be plain old salt.

So, now I'm ready. In the morning I am going to start my desem incubator.

Please click on the desem category link to follow along.

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